Friday, June 19, 2009


This post has sat patiently in my drafts folder. Every so often i pull it out, peer closely, prod it then sigh and put it back. Why? Because if i were to attempt to explain the 'meaning' of Matthew Barney's art we'd be here all day. You'd have gone cross eyed and I'd have developed cramp in my hands from all the typing. His work is a tricky beast and is difficult to pin down. I was introduced to Cremaster 3 on a rainy night in Dublin by someone who didn't realise the impact Barney's work would have on my perception of art. It blew my mind and i couldn't instantly decipher the meaning of the spectacular imagery I'd just watched.

A few words that spring to mind when watching his work:

* Epic

* Courageous

* Multi-layered

* Controlled

* Ritualistic

* Unsettling

Barney is an American artist who was born in San Francisco in 1967. As a result of his parents divorce he lived with his father in Boise, Idaho where he wrestled and played football on his high school team. His visits to his mother in New York City opened a world of art and museums. The juxtaposition of sports and art informed his work as a sculptor and filmmaker. He enrolled in Yale University as a premed student with the intent of becoming a plastic surgeon. He gradually moved towards art and graduated from Yale in 1989. He then moved to New York.

In my opinion his most epic and i mean EPIC piece of work is The Cremaster Cycle. It's a project consisting of five feature length films and related sculptures, photographs and drawings. It took 8 years to complete (1994-2002) and the films run at about seven hours in length (total). The films were shot and released out of order; he filmed Cremaster 4 in 1994, Cremaster 1 in 1995, Cremaster 5 in 1997, Cremaster 2 in 1999, and finally concluded with Cremaster 3 in 2002. The films occasionally reference one another, but generally each film follows a different set of characters.

In a nutshell (no pun intended), The cremaster is a muscle in the male body that covers the testes and that raises and lower the scrotum and controls testicular contractions in response to external stimuli. The Cremaster Cycle explores the process of creation. Cremaster 1 represents the most “ascended” or undifferentiated state and Cremaster 5 the most “descended” or differentiated. Barney looked beyond biology as a way to explore the creation of form, by using aspects such as mythology, geology and aspects of biography (such as Gary Gilmore or Harry Houdini)

Cremaster Cycle features people such as Aimee Mullins, Norman Mailer, Ursula Andress, Richard Serra, Paul Brady, and uses diverse locations such as The Bronco Stadium in Idaho, The Isle of Man, The Bonneville Salt Flats, The Chrysler Building and The Guggenheim.

The only problem i have with his work is the unavailability of his material to the average person. I've been lucky enough to see all of the cycle thanks to a kind friend. The only part of Cremaster that's available to buy is the third installment, but it's not the full feature. It's 31 minutes extracted from the main piece. I'm a big believer in making art accessible to everyone regardless of circumstance.

You may disagree when i say that he has fed into a certain mentality of art for the 'chosen few'; and massively reduced the number of people who will get to see his work. I understand that it took vast amounts of time, resources, effort and financing to get the piece made but it has made exploring his work a huge challenge. If there was regular or semi regular screenings or exhibitions then this wouldn't be the case. They are rarely shown (either in sequence or even all 5 together) bar the odd exhibition e.g the 2002 Guggenheim show. It makes it extremely difficult to develop more than vague understanding of Cremaster or his work in general. However if you are resourceful you may be able to figure something out.

" They cannot be distributed as DVDs because they originally sold as limited-edition art objects. If a sculpture is in an edition of six, you can't make more of them. It's not right for them to be available to be owned in an unlimited way after they've been sold in a limited way. I have the right to do theatrical distribution of the films, which I've done with 'Cremaster' and 'Drawing Restraint 9.' In Paris, they have now, for the second time, brought back the series. It's certainly a better condition to see it than on a monitor." Barney stated.

The following is an interview with Matthew Barney that helps clarify some of his ideas and methods (Includes Trailer):

The following synopsis has been taken from

CREMASTER 1 (1995)

A musical revue performed on the blue Astroturf playing field of Bronco Stadium in Boise, Idaho-Barney’s hometown. Two Goodyear Blimps float above the arena, each tended by four air hostesses. In the middle of each cabin interior sits a white-clothed table, its top decorated with an abstract centerpiece sculpted from Vaseline and surrounded by clusters of grapes. In one blimp the grapes are green, in the other they are purple. Under both of these otherwise identical tables resides Goodyear (played by Marti Domination). Inhabiting both blimps simultaneously, this doubled creature sets the narrative in motion. After prying an opening in the tablecloth above her head, she plucks grapes from their stems and pulls them down into her cell.

With these grapes, Goodyear produces diagrams that direct the choreographic patterns created by a troupe of dancing girls on the field below. The camera switches back and forth between Goodyear’s drawings and aerial views of the chorus girls moving into formation: their designs shift from parallel lines to the figure of a barbell, from a large circle to an outline of splitting and multiplying cells, and from a horizontally divided field emblem (Barney’s signature motif) to an undifferentiated reproductive system (which marks the first six weeks of fetal development). Gliding in time to the musical score, the chorus girls delineate the contours of a still-androgynous gonadal structure, which echoes the shapes of the two blimps overhead and symbolizes a state of pure potential.

CREMASTER 2 (1999)

A gothic Western that introduces conflict into the system. On the biological level it corresponds to the phase of fetal development during which sexual division begins. In Barney’s abstraction of this process, the system resists partition and tries to remain in the state of equilibrium imagined inCremaster 1. The looping narrative of Cremaster 2 moves from 1977, the year of Gary Gilmore’s execution, to 1893, when Harry Houdini, who may have been Gilmore’s grandfather, performed at the World’sColumbian Exposition. The film is structured around three interrelated themes, the landscape as witness, the story of Gilmore (played by Barney), and the life of bees and describes the potential of moving backward in order to escape one’s destiny.

Both Gilmore’s correlation with the male bee and his kinship to Houdini (played by Norman Mailer, Gilmore’s real-life biographer) are established in the conception scene. Gilmore’s sense of his own doomed role as drone is expressed in the ensuing sequence in a recording studio where DaveLombardo , former drummer of Slayer, is playing a solo to the sound of swarming bees and a man shrouded by bees growls into a telephone. These figures allude to Johnny Cash, who is said to have called Gilmore on the night of his execution in response to the convict’s dying wish.
Barney depicts Gilmore’s murder of a Mormon gas-station attendant in both sculptural and dramatic forms. Inferring that Gilmore killed out of a longing for union with his girlfriend, Nicole Baker, he represents their relationship through two conjoined Mustangs that, coincidentally, they both owned. In the murder sequence, Gilmore shoots his victim in the back of the head. This act sets in motion the trial and verdict that will condemn him to death. Barney stages the judgment of Gilmore in the Mormon Tabernacle. Gilmore refuses to appeal his sentence and opts for execution by firing squad, in a literal interpretation of the Mormon belief that blood must be shed in order for a sinner to obtain salvation. His execution is staged as a prison rodeo in a cast-salt arena in the middle of the Bonneville Salt Flats.

In Barney’s interpretation of the execution, Gilmore was less interested in attaining Mormon redemption than in performing a chronological two-step that would return him to the space of his alleged grandfather, Houdini, with whom he identified the notion of freedom through self-transformation. Seeking escape from his fate, he chose death in an act of ultimate self-will. Gilmore’s metaphoric transportation back to the turn of the century is rendered in a dance sequence featuring the Texas two-step. The film ends in theColumbian Exposition hall, where Houdini is approached by Gilmore’s future grandmother, Baby Fay La Foe, starting anew the circular narrative of Cremaster 2.

CREMASTER 3 (2002)

Set in New York City and narrates the construction of the Chrysler Building. A character itself, the building is host to inner, antagonistic forces at play for access to the process of (spiritual) transcendence. These factions find form in the struggle between Hiram Abiff or the Architect (played by Richard Serra) and the Entered Apprentice (played by Barney), who are both working on the building. They are re-enacting the Masonic myth of Hiram Abiff, purported architect of Solomon’s Temple, who possessed knowledge of the mysteries of the universe. The murder and resurrection of Abiff are re-enacted during Masonic initiation rites. After a prologue steeped in Celtic mythology, the narrative begins under the foundation of the partially constructed Chrysler Building. A female corpse digging her way out of a grave is the undead Gary Gilmore, protagonist of Cremaster 2. Carried out of her tomb by five boys, she is transported to the Chrysler Building’s lobby and deposited in the back seat of a Chrysler Imperial New Yorker. During this scene, the camera cross-cuts to the Apprentice troweling cement over carved fuel-tank caps of five 1967 Chrysler Crown Imperials, each bearing the insignia of a different Cremaster episode.

Packed with cement, these caps will serve as battering rams in a demolition derby about to begin. The Apprentice then scales one of the building’s elevator shafts until reaching a car. Using this cabin as a mold, he pours cement to cast the perfect ashlar, a symmetricallyhewn stone that symbolizes moral rectitude in Masonic ritual. By circumventing the carving process to create the perfect ashlar, the Apprentice has cheated in his rites of passage and has sabotaged the construction of the building.

The ensuing scene in the Chrysler Building’s Cloud Club bar is a slapstick routine between bartender and Apprentice. Almost everything goes wrong, and these humorous mishaps result in the bartender playing his environment like a bagpipe. The accidents are caused by a woman (played by Aimee Mullins) in an adjoining room stuffing potatoes under the foundation of the bar until it is no longer level, a condition that echoes the corrupted state of the tower. The action is interrupted by a scene shift to a racetrack, where the Apprentice is accosted by hit men who break all his teeth in retribution for his deception.

Back in the Cloud Club, he is escorted to a dental office and stripped of his clothes. An apron of flesh obtrudes from his navel, referencing the lambskin aprons worn by Masonic candidates as a symbol for the state of innocence before the Fall. In the dental suite the Apprentice is simultaneously punished and redeemed for his hubris by the Architect whose own hubris also knows no bounds. Returning to his office, and anxious about the tower’s slow progress, the Architect constructs two pillars that allude to the columns,Jachin and Boaz, designed by Abiff for Solomon’s Temple. Meanwhile, the Apprentice escapes from the dental lab and climbs to the top of the tower. The Architect uses his columns as a ladder and climbs through anoculus in the ceiling.

The next scene describes an apotheosis, the Architect becoming one with his design, as the tower itself is transformed into a maypole. At this point in the narrative the film pauses for achoric interlude. The rites of the Masonic fraternity, through allegorical representations of the five-part Cremaster cycle, are staged in the guise of a game in the Guggenheim Museum. Called “The Order” this competition features a fantastical incarnation of the Apprentice as its sole contestant; who must overcome obstacles on each level of the museum’s spiralling rotunda. In one of the final scenes, which returns to the top of the Chrysler Building, the Architect is murdered by the Apprentice, who is then killed by the tower. Both men have been punished for their hubris and the building will remain unfinished. The film ends with a coda that links it toCremaster 4. This is the legend of Fionn MacCumhail, which describes the formation of the Isle of Man, where the next installment of the Cremaster cycle takes place.

CREMASTER 4 (1994)

Adheres most closely to the project’s biological model. This penultimate episode describes the system’s onward rush toward descension despite its resistance to division. The logo for this chapter is the Manx triskelion, three identical armoured legs revolving around a central axis. Set on the Isle of Man, the film absorbs the island’s folklore as well as its more recent incarnation as host to the Tourist Trophy motorcycle race. Myth and machine combine to narrate a story of candidacy, which involves a trial of the will.
The film comprises three main character zones. The Loughton Candidate (played by Barney) is a satyr with two sets of impacted sockets in his head that will eventually grow into the horns of the matureLoughton Ram. Its horns: two arcing upward, two down form a diagram that proposes a condition undifferentiating, with ascension and descension coexisting in equilibrium. The second and third character zones comprise a pair of motorcycle sidecar teams: the Ascending and Descending Hacks. A trio of attendant fairies mirrors the three narrative fields occupied by the Candidate and the two racing teams.

Cremaster 4 begins and ends in a building on the end of Queen’s Pier. The Candidate is being prepared by the fairies for a journey. The motorcycle race starts, and each team of Hacks speeds off in opposite directions. The camera cuts back and forth between the race and the Candidate, who is tap-dancing his way through a slowly eroding floor. As the bikes vie for the title, gelatinous forms, undifferentiated internal sex organs emerge from slots in the riders’ uniforms in a migratory quest for directionality; the organs of the Ascending Hack move upward, while those of the Descending Hack ooze downward.

Back at the pier, the Candidate plunges through the floor into the sea and heads toward the island. At the moment of his fall a transition from the utopian realm of pre genital oneness to that of bifurcation, the Ascending Hack collides with a stone embankment and the Descending Hack pulls off the course for a pit stop, where the fairies service its motorcycle. The Candidate reaches land and begins to burrow his way through a curving underground channel to reach the finish line, where the two Hacks will converge. This conduit leads him to a bluff, where the fairies are frolicking in a game that mirrors the conflict enacted by the principal characters, but with none of the tension. Still in his underground tunnel, the Candidate finally reaches his destination. The Loughton Ram stands at this junction a symbol for the integration of opposites, the urge for unity that fuels this triple race. But before the Candidate and Hacks meet, the screen goes white. The Candidate’s dream of transcending his biology to dwell in the space of pure symmetry is shattered.

In the final sequence at the pier the Hacks are parked on discrete ramps sloping down from the building’s exterior. In the closing image the camera peers through an open, male crotch at the top of the frame toward the end of the pier. A tightly retracted scrotum is pierced with clasps connected to vinyl cords, which trail off to the awaiting Ascending and Descending Hacks, who will drive toward the island to pick up the slack. Full descension is guaranteed.

CREMASTER 5 (1997)

In which total descension is finally attained, is envisioned as a tragic love story set in the romantic dreamscape of late-19th-century Budapest. The film is cast in the shape of a lyric opera. Biological metaphors shift form to inhabit emotional states, longing and despair that become musical leitmotivs in the orchestral score. The opera’s primary characters the Queen of Chain (played by Ursula Andress) and her Diva, Magician, and Giant (all played by Barney) enact collectively the final release promised by the project as a whole.

Cremaster 5 opens with an overture that introduces the opera’s characters and lays out the map of Budapest that the narrative will traverse. The Magician crosses the bridge on horseback. The Queen ascends the staircase of the Hungarian State Opera House with her two ushers. She settles onto her throne in the royal booth, and the ushers arrange a fleet of Jacobin pigeons around her. Pearls float on the surface of the pools in thermal baths, partially concealing the sprites, who inhabit their underwater realms. The curtain rises to an empty theatre, the conductor readies his orchestra, and the opera begins.
As the Queen sings, her Diva appears on the stage, delineates the proscenium arch of the stage by laying ribbons across its floor, and then scales its contours. The Queen’s mind wanders to memories of her beloved Magician preparing for a leap into the waters of the Danube from the bridge. His ritualistic actions recall the famed bridge jumps of Harry Houdini who was born in Budapest in 1874. The Magician is seeking transcendence, but the Queen misunderstands his actions and thinks he is trying to take his own life.

The Queen’s ushers direct her attention to orifices in her throne through which she can see into the Baths below. Her birds plummet through the passages in the throne, trailing long satin ribbons into the bath. Her Giant enters the watery path between the two pools. The sprites cluster around him with a garland woven from the ribbons attached to the birds which they affix to the Giant’s scrotum. In the warm waters of the thermal baths, the cremaster muscle releases and the testicles descend. This climactic moment where the emergence of a fully differentiated state becomes visible when the pigeons soar upward then fly downward with ribbons trailing. The Queen then relives the Magician’s leap into the river and swoons from the horror of her recollection.

At this point the narrative mirrors the path of descension just revealed: having completed his climb, the Diva tumbles to the stage, and the Magician plunges to the bottom of the river. Two water sprites caress his fallen body and insert a black pearl into his mouth. The Queen performs her mournful aria, preparing to join her lover in death. A thin stream of liquid trickles from her mouth into the pools below. On its descent, the stream divides into two droplets that strike the water simultaneously. Two perfect circles resonate outward, filling the surface of the bath with their waves, suggesting, in turn, eternal renewal or the echoes of a system expiring. The Cremaster cycle defers any definitive conclusion."

Complicated huh?! His work is definitely worth exploring and the following links should be a good starting point for anyone attempting to delve deeper.

All Images:


Meadow said...

Great post. Will have to return to watch the clips.

Green of Eye, Sharp of Claw said...


Heya lady! It took a while to get my head around his stuff but it's worth exploring. Let me know what you think if you do get the chance.

A Doubtful Egg said...

Thanks for reminding me about these works! I saw The Cremaster Cycle in Paris a few years back and was absolutely stunned by its force and imagination. I understand what Barney says about not releasing the films on DVD, but I wish he'd reconsider. When I saw them, I knew little about Barney, and being faced with several hours of complex and difficult material to absorb in one sitting is asking an awful lot of the viewer. If I was able to watch them at home at my leisure, I could familiarise myself with the material so that when I'm faced with the real thing in a gallery, I'd be in a much better position to enjoy it. He could always put a disclaimer on the DVD about how these aren't the real "art works". After all, reproductions of paintings don't detract from appreciation of the real thing.

Anonymous said...

I've seen the first three in Sydney. They were mind blowing - I love Matthew Barney's work

Green of Eye, Sharp of Claw said...

@Doubtfull Egg:
You're one of the lucky few who has seen the full cycle, and i completely agree with you that it's an enormous undertaking to absorb it all in one go.When i finally got access to all five,I was lucky in that i could watch each one at my own pace.

I'm still trying to work out why exactly his work makes me feel so unsettled and yet exhilarated at the same time.

@Nurse Myra:
He's amazing isn't he.I'd love to spend one week in his brain, with the cogs turning and whirring!

Visions it it being slightly 'Being John Malkovich'ish :)

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